Category Archives: Dance Massive

Some overdue house-keeping

What a year it has been, dear reader. I have been writing a lot, but I have not been so good at keeping track of it on GS. Apart from The Critic, my column for The Lifted Brow, which I have been dilligently tracking here, here are the other articles I have had published this year:

The Guardian:
Review of Chunky Move’s Depth of Field, March 16, Dance Massive 2015.

Review of Rawcus’ Catalogue, March 18, Dance Massive 2015.

Review of Roslyn Crisp’s The Boom Project, March 23, Dance Massive 2015.

Dancehouse Diary:
An Ethics of Touch, Dancehouse Diary #8 / 2015.

RealTime:
Review: Dance Massive 2015, RealTime 126. Includes: Atlanta Eke’s Body of Work, Tim Darbyshire’s Stampede the Stampede, Motion Picture by Lucy Guerin Inc, MEETING by Antony Hamilton.

De Keersmaeker’s dance of ever more simple movement, RealTime 125. Belgium column #01. Includes: Augustus ergens op de vlakte (August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts), by Tom Dewispelaere and Stijn Van Opstal at KVS; Partita 2, by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas; Golden Hours (As You Like It) by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Kaaitheater.

The deep roots of revelatory performance, RealTime 126, Belgium column #02. Includes: Le sorelle Macaluso by Emma Dante; Sonja by Alvis Hermanis.

Unburdened Australians in an adventurous mix, RealTime 127, Belgium column #03. Includes: For Your Ears Only by Dianne Weller at Beursschouwburg; Into The Big World by David Weber Krebs at Kaai Studios.

Going for the burn, RealTime 128, Aug-Sep 2015, Belgium/Germany column #04. Includes: Foreign Affairs Festival; Angélica Liddell & Atra Bilis Teatro: You Are My Destiny (lo stupro di Lucrezia); Barbarians by Hofesh Shechter Company; Deep Aerobics by Miguel Gutierrez.

Regaining equilibrium, RealTime 129, Oct-Nov 2015, Belgium/Germany column #05. Includes: Tanz im August, Berlin; 6 & 7 by TAO Dance Theatre; SCAN by Rosemary Butcher; Occasion III by Isabel Lewis.

Dance Massive 05: More or Less Monstrous (reviewed: Atlanta Eke’s Monster Body)

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Atlanta Eke, Monster Body
photo Rachel Roberts

ATLANTA EKE’S MONSTER BODY IS A RADICAL AND BORDER-SHIFTING WORK FOR AUSTRALIAN DANCE, EVEN IF NOT SO IN AN INTERNATIONAL CONTEXT. THE ARTISTS WHOSE WORK FITS MOST CLOSELY IN THE LINEAGE OF MONSTER BODY—LA RIBOT, MATHILDE MONNIER, ANN LIV YOUNG AND YOUNG JEAN LEE—ARE RARELY IF EVER SEEN ON THESE SHORES.

But once an innovation happens, it loses its singularity in iteration. It thus cannot be appraised simply in the macho, military terms of ‘revolution,’ ‘innovation’ or ‘shock’: it becomes essayistic, formalist, a tool in a toolbox. But Monster Body is a carefully conceptualised and executed work, and loses nothing when the shock wears off. Instead, it provokes more thought, with greater clarity.

It is hard to see Monster Body without having first received warnings about its nudity, urination and feminism. On the surface, it is a confronting piece: Eke, swirling a hula hoop, greets us wearing nothing but a grotesque dinosaur mask. A series of classical ballet battements follows, morphing into rather more ordinary walking and crouching movements, accompanied by synchronised growls and shrieks. In the piece’s most notorious segment, Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman”, that Trojan Horse of post-feminist self-expression, blares as Eke placidly pees while standing upright, then rolls on the same patch of floor in gently erotic poses.

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Atlanta Eke, Monster Body
photo Rachel Roberts

However, the piece is neither overtly angry nor in-yer-face combative. Eke maintains dispassionate focus: the ambient lighting never creates separation between audience and stage, and the work seems to ask us to observe and judge, rather than rise up in arms. Notice, for example, how much more monstrous than the mask is Eke’s naked body—even though it is both a culturally docile (depilated in all the right places) and aesthetically ‘successful’ (young, toned, thin) body. We are accustomed to seeing rubber animal faces more than epithet-less nudity. Notice how unpleasant it is to watch a woman growl: inarticulate sounds and purposeless body movements need not be particularly extreme to cross a boundary of what a healthy woman may do with herself. The residue of the spectre of hysteria still lurks in our minds. Observe how very easy it is for a female human to appear monstrous, as if it has only been partially digested by our civilization. And when a man in a hazmat suit appears to clean the floor or hand Eke a towel, observe how his very presence upsets the all-female stage, how ineffably strange it is to see this man neither represent, uphold nor fight for any kind of patriarchy.

Echoes of other artists appear reduced to bare essence. Eke and another female performer fondle each other’s bodies with a pair of rubber hands on long poles: this is Pina Bausch, but gentle, a moment that relies on our body memory of uninvited hands sliding down our calves for its emotional impact. Or, Eke fills her body stocking with pink water balloons, posing in her new, distorted figure, half-undressing and ending up with the stocking knotted into a bundle on her back, hunched under a heavy load of blubbery things that look, for all intents and purposes, like a pile of teats, or breast implants. The image echoes a whole canon of female disfiguration in art (I thought of Nagi Noda’s Poodle Fitness) as well as that of the misadventures of plastic surgery and of certain kinds of pornography, but it simply asks us consider what a human might look like once it has more breasts than limbs.

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Monster Body, Atlanta Eke
photo Rachel Roberts

And then, in a musical intermezzo to Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)”, hip-hop empowerment, complete with an aggressive, ultra-sexualised choreography, is performed by an ensemble of variously-shaped girls, their nakedness only made starker by their running footwear and black bags on their heads. Drawing a link between the objectification and torture of people inside and outside of Abu Ghraib has already been made, with similar means, and perhaps more clarity, by Post in Gifted and Talented), but Eke emphasises the vulnerability of these well-performing bodies, bodies that participate in their nominal liberation. Suddenly, Beyonce’s form of bravado displays exactly the weakness it is designed to hide. The painful powerlessness of this posturing is revealed by the sheer effort it requires, by the way it poorly fits a naked body, stripped of the armour of a hyper-sexualised costume.

As much as I tried, and despite everything I have read about it, I failed to see much of an all-encompassing exploration of human objectification in Monster Body. It seemed so clearly to draw a narrative arc of feminine non-liberation in present time, from the restrictive culturally condoned vulnerability of Britney to the restrictive culturally condoned strength of Beyonce. Its obvious interest in audience as a meaningful half of the show also seemed to have fallen by the wayside, leaving a palpable void. However, as an essay on the physical restrictions of being a woman today, and a deeply thought-through one, it was very intellectually engaging. Shocking it wasn’t, but I suspect that was not its goal, either.

Dance Massive, Dancehouse: Monster Body, choreographer, performer Atlanta Eke, performers Amanda Betlehem, Tim Birnie, Tessa Broadby, Ashlea English, Sarah Ling; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 22-24;http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 03: The Body Un-Mirrored (reviewed: Chunky Move’s 247 Days)

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Lauren Langlois, 247 days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

SOME DISCLAIMERS ARE IN ORDER. I UNINTENTIONALLY SAW 247 DAYS AS A PREVIEW PERFORMANCE. I SAT NEXT TO THE CHOREOGRAPHER AS SHE SCRIBBLED NOTES INTO HER SMALL NOTEPAD, AND FELT AN ENORMOUS PRESSURE TO READ THE POTENTIAL OF THE WORK GENEROUSLY. TO MAKE MATTERS SLIGHTLY MORE COMPLICATED, IT WAS MY FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE CHOREOGRAPHER’S WORK.

Anouk van Dijk, the new artistic director of Chunky Move, has called this her first ‘real’ Australian choreography. Among the very few clarificatory program notes, van Dijk writes “247 days is the time it takes for a choreographic work to gestate.” 247 is also the number of days she has spent in Australia. It is, thus, a choreography made entirely out of Australia, its effect on van Dijk’s body, psyche, heart. (There is a kernel of an old idea here, something I first heard said in Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I (2000): our body constantly regenerates all its cells, and so, every so often, we become new people, even to ourselves.)

I had not seen any of Anouk van Dijk’s choreographies—neither in Australia, nor in Europe —and consequently had no ability to tell the Australian cells apart from the European ones. All I knew was that van Dijk’s Chunky Move debut, An Act of Now [RT112] explored human connection, and that there was a Tanztheater collaboration with Falk Richter in Schaubühne’s repertoire titled TRUST [RT95]. It felt like a letdown, therefore, to watch a choreography unfold thematically into quite literally the only thing I expected: trust and human connection.

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Tara Soh, James Pham, Lauren Langlois, Leif Helland, Niharika Senapati, Alya Manzart, 247 Days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

Six 20-something multiracial dancers—a welcome departure from the pervasive all-whiteness of the Chunky Move ensemble I had come to expect—delve deeply into their bodies to articulate the physicality of four distinct relationships between the individual and their social surroundings: freedom, loneliness, constraint, connection. The set is a semi-circular full-height mirror, broken into segments so that, curiously, not only is the audience not reflected back to itself, but the dancers often have no reflection either. If ever there was an accurate articulation of finding oneself in a foreign place, unable to establish a relationship with one’s surroundings that would provide legible feedback on identity, here it was. There is no easy mirroring back, when one is a stranger: an epistemological aloneness develops. Within the set’s twisting, opening, folding into screens or dressing-room cubicles, the dancers veer between obsessive self-analysis and chasing their own, fleeting image.

The work is peppered with voice: from inarticulate cursing to a soundscape-forming cacophony, to first-person confessionals. The entire tradition of Tanztheater forces me to understand this as self-expression, not performance, and I was frustrated by the banality of so many utterances (“When I feel lonely, I…”), while the more potentially interesting ones were so often drowned to illegibility in polyphony. A number of points are progressively woven together: belonging (what happens when your family leaves Australia, and you stay?), coming out (and the negotiation of individual, familial and social self), and glimpses of questions that made sense to me, but not necessarily to the work. Are we attracted to people who look like us, because we want to be them, not stricto sensu love them? The naivete was grating, yet fitting: the more one tries to approach a foreign environment—be it a new country, or a new erotic community—with openness, the more one is willing to be infected with influence, the more one reverts to the somewhat idiotic ontological uncertainty of adolescence.

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James Pham, Leif Helland, Lauren Langlois, Niharika Senapati, Niharika Senapati, Alya Manzart, 247 Days, Chunky Move
photo Jeff Busby

Much of the movement is contactless, shifting from shielding invisible constraints to self-propelled freedom, to narcissistic attempts to please the mirror. Van Dijk’s own philosophy of counter-technique, a training of the body to lose its upright axis and open itself to imbalance, subjects these unheld, uncaught, unembraced bodies to so much vulnerability. The choreography, however, comes together most satisfyingly in duets and trios, in which Van Dijk’s emphasis on bodies’ openness to external force is at its most articulate. One phenomenal male duet pairs a strong, controlling body (Leif Helland) with a rolling, soft one (James Pham). As Helland embraces and drops, folds and envelops Pham, moving purposefully outside his own centre of gravity, something deep and fundamental about our need to be held, supported and empowered through care shines through. (One wonders, additionally, given the times we live in, where are the same-sex duets in contemporary dance?)

247 Days ends on a weak note. Given the strength with which many works in Dance Massive have turned stage sound into sound design, I hoped for a more careful integration of voice into the work. At times 247 Days left me cold, but when it worked, it was powerful and, after all, I was watching a preview.

Dance Massive, Malthouse: Chunky Move, 247 Days, concept, choreography Anouk van Dijk, performers Leif Helland, Lauren Langlois, Alya Manzart, James Pham, Niharika Senapati, Tara Soh, composition, sound designer Marcel Wierck, set design Michael Hankin, lighting Niklas Pajanti, costumes Shio Otani; The Malthouse Theatre, March 15–23; http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 02: inside the audience (reviewed: Lee Serle’s P.O.V.)

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
Kristy Ayre, P.O.V, Lee Serle
photo Ponch Hawkes

P.O.V., IS, FOR THE MOST PART, VERY SATISFYING TO WATCH. SERLE —ONE OF THOSE DANCERS MELBOURNE KNOWS WELL FROM REGULAR APPEARANCES AT NEXT WAVE AND IN THE WORKS OF LUCY GUERIN INC AND CHUNKY MOVE—DEVELOPED P.O.V IN NEW YORK UNDER THE MENTORSHIP OF TRISHA BROWN, AS A PART OF THE ROLEX MENTOR AND PROTEGE ARTS INITIATIVE.

I have a personal liking for New York contemporary: I adore its rigorous, yet unpretentious simplicity. Across the board, it possesses a humility and matter-of-factness that are equally disarming in Europe and in Australia, and it is somehow able to withstand a cynical as well as a philistine eye. By whittling away all ornament, but never getting too bogged down in illustrating esoteric texts (as has happened in Europe), it is as if the American dancers never quite bush-bashed their way through tradition all the way into a settled, comfortable arrogance, but remained suspended in a state of focused, ambitious play. This approach appears in Melbourne dance in visible traces, through echoes of training and influence, in the works of BalletLab and Luke George. Unavoidably, P.O.V. too has arrived back from the US seeped in Trisha Brown’s aesthetic and ethic, clearly as the work of a young artist shaped heavily by a master builder.

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
James Andrews, P.O.V, Lee Serle
photo Ponch Hawkes

Serle seats (some of) the audience on 36 swivel stools that dot the stage in orderly intervals. Four dancers—Serle, Lily Paskas, Kristy Ayre, James Andrews—travel between them, through the grid of aisles. It becomes immediately clear that where you sit will determine your experience—I felt a none-too-subtle nudge in my semiotic ribs—and, having arrived too late for a coveted stage seat, I perched on top of the seating bank, getting a nice, rounded overview of the piece. (It is to the show’s credit that every reviewer of P.O.V. so far has specified where they sat.)

There are three distinct parts to the choreography. In the first, the four dancers traverse the space between people in an orderly formation, performing a mesmerising score—very Brown—of simple, pendular movements that gently roll their weight up and down the aisles. At times, the choreography looks like tightly stitched-together pieces of athletic sports, with segments of continuous movement blending into one another in surprising ways: the momentum-building squat of a distance runner morphs into the swirl of the discus or javelin thrower, or into the oblique leap of a high jumper. Sequences keep unfolding instead of halting and turning, the dancers’ formation growing in mathematical complexity, while the spectators swivel their chairs to watch. It looks like the patterns of pedestrians in a city; it also looks like a complex collage of film footage from Olympics documentaries and newsreels. It is utterly beautiful in the way of abstract flows.

P.O.V. presented by Arts House & Lee Serle
Lee Serle, Lily Paskas, P.O.V
photo Ponch Hawkes

In the second part, the dancers step out of performer aloofness and approach the audience members, increasingly intrusively. Some are stared at, some get a surprise massage, one is briefly blindfolded, another has her feet washed, one is shown something on a tablet, some are taken offstage, one is given wine and a chat with all of the dancers. Ayre gives a set of headphones to a woman, takes another set, and performs a little private dance (funny, almost like a parody of a lap dance) to the music only they can hear. Serle repeats this with another audience member, but his dance involves a great deal of animal poses. Paskas stretches herself gently over a man. As audience interaction, this is not so much about letting other people into the performance—there is no ceding of control, ever—as it is about multiplying, unweaving the energy lines between the stage and the audience. The main effect is not for a multitude of spectators to have a meaningful individual experience (they do not), but to complicate the audience focus from a straight phalanx of one-way looks to a knot, a jumble of sight lines with different levels of energy, stress, comfort, feeling of inclusion or exclusion, and amusement.

The second part is in some ways the weakest, because it relies on trivial tropes of audience engagement: singing to them, touching them slightly awkwardly, as well as having conversations designed only to look like conversations from far away. It takes part three to demonstrate that something more has been achieved. The dancers return to their dance, their path through the swivel-stool grid now circular, simplified. Their movements have become smaller, gentler, introverted—and also more twee, wristy: more Lucy Guerin than Trisha Brown—but the most noticeable shift is in how our attention has softened. The barriers separating the dancers from the audience have glaringly thinned, the energy in the room is completely different. Like a street after an incident—a burst pipe, a found pet—has made us all talk to each other.

P.O.V. is clearly an apprentice’s graduating piece. The title sums up its exploratory horizons, and it reproduces Brown’s body language without showing how Serle is a creative mind of his own. Where it deviates, it pulls back in the influences and mannerisms of Obarzanek and Guerin, and chooses easy paths, such as humorous tropes. However, for as long as it is able to resist its own striving to busy itself up with features, for as long as it can stay disciplined and clear-headed, P.O.V. is immensely satisfying.

Dance Massive, Arts House: P.O.V. director, choreographer Lee Serle, performers, collaborators James Andrews, Kristy Ayre, Lily Paskas, Lee Serle, lighting Ben Cisterne, composition, sound design Luke Smiles, set design Lee Serle, costumes Lee Serle, Shio Otani in collaboration with the performers; production management Megafun, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 12-16; http://dancemassive.com.au/

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 04: The Creation of an Affective Community (reviewed: Matthew Day’s Intermission)

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Matthew Day, Intermission
photo Rachel Roberts

MATTHEW DAY IS ALMOST CERTAINLY THE BEST OF A NEW GENERATION OF AUSTRALIAN CHOREOGRAPHERS. HE EXPLODED ONTO THE DANCE LANDSCAPE IN 2010, BRINGING AN ORIGINAL AND FULLY DEVELOPED POETICS SEEMINGLY OUT OF NOWHERE. HIS SERIES OF EXTREMELY SIMPLE, BUT CONCEPTUALLY RIGOROUS WORKS HAS CAPTIVATED THE AUDIENCE, AND AUSTRALIAN DANCE IS ALREADY IMMENSELY RICHER FOR IT.

Intermission is the final part of a trilogy that began with Thousands, in 2010, and continued with Cannibal, in 2011. In each part, Day explored the empathetic effect of absolutely basic movement: first stillness, then pulsating repetition. In Intermission, the focus is on undulating, rhythmic sway. The works are colour-coded: Thousands was gold, Cannibal pure white.

Intermission is black. We enter, one by one, a black box. A human figure is barely visible on a darkened stage: the lights are on us. The lights slowly dim, plunging us into a few minutes of pitch black. When the stage lights up, Day stands still, in casual black clothes: jeans, sneakers, gloves, and masking tape where a line of skin might show between the cuffs.

As James Brown’s soundscape of a single droning, thundering sub-bass line sends pulsating tremors through our bodies, a sound more felt than heard, Day begins to almost imperceptibly rock left to right. His micro-shuffle grows, reaching shoulders, elbows, neck, arms, knees, until kinetic waves are flowing through Day’s entire body. This is not exactly choreography: rather, it is controlled movement. The only betrayal of the performer’s skill and training is in the constancy of rhythm and evenness of gesture: while strenuous, the movement never exhausts the body. The point of these pieces is not to explore endurance or produce exhaustion, but to maintain constancy.

Day’s works do not happen so much on stage as in one’s body as one watches. The real spectacle of these pieces is not in observing and admiring the dancing (rather, moving) body, but in observing how being in the shared space with a moving body affects one’s own. The palpable rhythmic waves of kinetic energy emanating from the dancer, dense and tight and unrelenting, gradually build into very strong tension within one’s own body. A fellow spectator confided that during Thousands (an extremely still, slow piece) he felt an irresistible urge to stand up and do something, anything. Day has said elsewhere that he choreographs energetic exchange between performer and spectator: a choreographic situation that cannot exist without an audience. This is a more technical translation of what I try to describe to members of the general public, while queuing for the auditorium, as “it might upset your digestion.” “Should I not have gulped down my dinner?” asks one, half-jokingly. “That’s right,” I answer, very seriously.

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Matthew Day, Intermission
image James Brown

Intermission, however, is comparatively light on one’s body. The pulsating, wave-like physicality that Day employs creates a light, but literal, hypnosis, a wandering focus, not dissimilar to boredom, but with a liberating lining of calmness. Our feeling of time and spatial proportion blurs into a drifting vagueness of perception. Suddenly, Day has shifted through the space, drawing ever-larger circles, one minute rocking a step at a time. I am light-headed, if not quite dizzy. At one point, I wonder if there is a way to test this effect, like in stage show hypnosis: how many of us would quack if asked? Would that make dramaturgical sense? Our bodies are tense, but there is a relief in the repetition: like jogging or disco dancing, this is a relaxing tension.

Meanwhile, Day’s rocking has morphed multiple times: from a sideways push/pull to a figure-eight arms loop, then back to a simple rocking with his head tilted back; shifts that feel both momentous and imperceptible. As usual, the eye perceives reference where there might be none: a preparation for strenuous activity; the rocking of anxiety or stress; repetitive industrial labour; mystical dancing; the liberating and oppressive capacities of a low-frequency repeat cycle. But Day channels no emotion, just blank focus, a mind merged with motion. When the work ends, it feels like any time at all might have passed.

To fully appreciate Matthew Day’s work, it is necessary to understand just how fundamentally it breaks not simply from modern dance, but from the full canon of modernist thought: the imperative of equating being with movement (not simply forward, but all kinetic acts of purposeful movement), a constant shedding of present for the future, the Cartesian individualism that posits the thinking subject as tragically severed from the world, and what Teresa Brennan (Exhausting Modernity, 2000) calls “the uniform denial of the transmission of affect.” In its small way, by slowing down time and expanding space, by creating an affective community, by rejecting spectacle for co-presence, Intermission is a demonstration of another way of being in the world, of empathetic being together.

Dance Massive, Dancehouse: Intermission, choreographer, performer Matthew Day, dramaturgy Martin del Amo, sound designer James Brown, lighting designer Travis Hodgson; Dancehouse, Melbourne, March 17-19; http://dancemassive.com.au

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive 01: suggestive formalism (reviewed: Natalie Abbott’s Physical Fractals)

PHYSICAL FRACTALS presented by Arts House & Natalie Abbott
Natalie Abbott, Sarah Aitken, Physical Fractals
photo Ponch Hawkes

EVER SINCE MODERN DANCE BUILT ITS MANIFESTO ON THE REJECTION OF REALISTIC STORYTELLING, CONTEMPORARY DANCE HAS BEEN A BIT OF A HARD SLOG FOR UNACCUSTOMED AUDIENCES. A DEEPLY ABSTRACT ART—AND NATALIE ABBOTT’S PHYSICAL FRACTALS IS RIGHT UP THERE WITH THE MOST ABSTRACT—CONTEMPORARY DANCE OFTEN HINGES ON A CAPACITY FOR SUGGESTIVENESS AND THE DESIRE TO CULTIVATE A RICH INTERIOR LIFE.

The tenuous ‘truth’ of a dance work is so often buried somewhere between movement and mood, that we all, I would say, need the ability to let our minds wander over the physical performance, if we are to get to its core.

Postmodernism has brought narrative, realism and politics back into dance, but not evenly so. In particular, there is a strand of Australian dance that has furiously resisted all figuration, remained staunchly formalist and—I mean this without reprimand—has privileged mood and atmosphere over concept and narrative. Physical Fractals, the first long-form work by young choreographer Natalie Abbott, sits squarely within this tradition. The work examines how a cross-interference of media stimuli—sound, light and movement—can create a meaningful audience experience. It is deeply formalist in intent, and I am somewhat glad I entered the auditorium without knowing this.

Two young female dancers, Abbott herself and Sarah Aitken, dressed in loose, comfortable black, perform repetitious sequences of simple gestures, gradually drawing intersecting lines within the circular stage. Their movements are uncomplicated but heavy, Haka-like—wide stomping backwards, dangling arms, weighted jumping, running, heavy falling of bodies—with strong, pendular shifts of weight. The choreography emphasises the weightiness of these two (quite lithe) bodies, and creates an effect of empathetic physical exhaustion in the audience, particularly as we watch Abbott and Aitken repeatedly crash to the ground, in the final sequence. Meanwhile, their thumps and stomps are looped, magnified and sent swirling back, building into a powerful echo, as if the two women are single-handedly raising a storm. At one point, the dancers swing microphones on their cords, building a symphony of static. The effect is hypnotic but deep: the heaviness of the performance lodges itself deeply in one’s body.

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Sarah Aitken, Natalie Abbott, Physical Fractals
photo Ponch Hawkes

At its best, Physical Fractals makes us feel the sheer force of these simple movements on the dancers’ bodies. Abbott seems to emphasise weight not purely for sonic effect: repetition of falling, faltering and stooping builds a narrative of physical strain and resilience. It could be easily read as a feminist choreography, but equally as a humanist one (female body has limited significance here). Its dancing bodies are grounded, weighted, imperfectly synced, injurable, far from the superhero flying automata that one still sees. I was reminded acutely of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s early work, particularly Rosas Dans Rosas and Bartók, which wove the same strands of repetition, simple gestures and femininity into something formalist, yet humbly political and life affirming. (There was also an echo to her later work, which explores darkness, movement and silence within similar parameters.) But I kept waiting in vain for this work to use its magnificently realised means towards some higher goal.

Physical Fractals continuously operated on the same plane, neither submerging us under its powerful storm into a meditative enlightenment, nor raising us to a bird’s eye realisation of higher purpose. I could not detect a fractal pattern (a fractal is self-similar, presenting the same complexity of build at different scales: think cauliflower or snowflake). I was waiting for a minimum of philosophical framework, something to gently give meaning to the genuine empathy the work was creating, something between awe and care; I was waiting for Abbott to utilise the powerful spell she had cast on us. It never came, and the work is weaker for its unfulfilled potential than it would have been had it ventured a smaller stake.

For the pure affective stamp it leaves, Physical Fractals is a formally successful work, and Abbott a sensitive and intelligent choreographer. Just as de Keersmaeker’s formalist work created political resonances she had not necessarily had in mind, so was I able to enjoy an interior dialogue about strength, resilience, mysticism and the fourth wave of feminism while hypnotised by this fine choreography. This is not, and cannot be wrong: the figurative emptiness at the heart of contemporary dance requires a suggestible viewer. I cannot escape the impression, however, that I enjoyed Physical Fractals for the wrong and unexpected reasons—against the grain of the author’s intent.

Dance Massive: Physical Fractals, choreographer, director, performer Natalie Abbott, collaborator Rebecca Jensen, performer Sarah Aitken, live sound design Daniel Arnot, dramaturg Matthew Day, lighting Govin Ruben; Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 12-16; http://dancemassive.com.au/

First published in RealTime, Dance Massive special edition, Mar 2013. All rights reserved.

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Dance Massive: The truth of the matter, or not (reviewed: Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker)

Gideon Obarzanek, Faker. Photo: Heidrun Löhr, courtesy Sydney Opera House.

BEFORE WE COMMENCE, A POLITE REMINDER ON THE NATURE OF THE REAL IN THE THEATRE. ALTHOUGH EVERY ART FORM THAT SPEAKS OF THE WORLD IS TO SOME EXTENT MADE OF THE WORLD (THE TIMBER FRAME THAT STRETCHES THE CANVAS, AND SO FORTH), IN THEATRE THE SIGN AND THE THING ARE PARTICULARLY TIGHTLY ENMESHED. WHILE THE TYPED WORD ‘CHAIR’ STANDS FOR AN ACTUAL CHAIR, IT IS PRECISELY NOT A MATERIAL CHAIR. ON STAGE, IN CONTRAST, A THING IS ALWAYS BOTH A SIGN FOR A THING, AND THE THING ITSELF: A CHAIR ON STAGE IS A CHAIR THAT STANDS FOR A CHAIR.

Faker addresses us, the audience, as an autobiographical, even confessional work, but it is impossible to discuss it as such — once it enters stage space and stage time, ‘Gideon Obarzanek’ stands for Gideon Obarzanek, performing a sitting that stands for sitting, at a desk standing for a desk. It would be dramaturgically and critically naive to review ad hominem: this review can only talk about a staged character, ‘Gideon Obarzanek,’ not the person off-stage; and about the stage letter he receives from a theatrical pupil. The question of the percentage of ‘reality’ involved is, in this case, at the very least dumb, and at the very worst unethical.

The dramatic structure has ‘Obarzanek’ alternating between two activities: first, he reads out a letter sent to him by a young dancer, clearly smitten by ‘Obarzanek,’ who initiates a collaboration, hoping that he will “bring out the fabulous” in her, and then finds herself feeling progressively more vulnerable, let down, and growing increasingly more disappointed, hostile. The voice of the letter sounds clear notes of adoration, insecurity, need to be liked and desire to please, and although it is said to belong to a woman, it could easily belong to a young man. Asked to perform something she has not done before (“this task was designed in a way that I could only fail”), her insecurity starts coalescing into a perception of betrayal: “I stood there, humiliated.”

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Dance Massive: Let’s dance – and we do (reviewed: bluemouth inc.’s Dance Marathon)

Dance Marathon, Dance Massive. Photo: Ponch Hawkes.

DANCE MARATHON IS ONE OF THE MOST COMPLEX, MOST SOPHISTICATED AND YET MOST DELIRIOUSLY ENJOYABLE PERFORMANCE WORKS I HAVE EXPERIENCED IN A LONG WHILE, AND THE CIRCUMSTANCES IN WHICH THIS REVIEW HAS COME ABOUT WILL ALLOW ONLY THE MOST SUPERFICIAL SCRATCHING OF ITS SURFACE. THE NEED TO PRODUCE A WRITTEN RESPONSE TO A PERFORMANCE WORK BY THE FOLLOWING MORNING BECOMES A GREAT IMPEDIMENT TO ANALYSIS IF SUCH WORK REQUIRES YOU TO DANCE ALMOST NON-STOP FROM 8PM UNTIL MUCH PAST MIDNIGHT. BETWEEN MY RAW EXPERIENCE AND THE REFLECTION ON IT THERE HAS BEEN TIME ONLY FOR SOME VERY DEEP SLEEP.

Dance Marathon, staged by Canadian interdisciplinary theatre collective bluemouth inc, functions on at least two levels, which have not entirely come together in my mind. The first is referential. It is staged as a version of the dance marathons popular in the USA in the 1920s and the 1930s. Starting off as Charleston-era one-person (largely female) showcases, the willingness of young dancers to compete in endurance dancing, seeking quick fame, prompted presenters to organise increasingly more elaborate marathons, weaving variety acts and celebrity appearances through the event, introducing complex rules of elimination, theatricalising personal dramas of the contestants and attracting large audiences. Short breaks were introduced for the dancers, allowing the overall length of the marathon to stretch to days, weeks, months. During the Depression era, dance marathons became the bread and circuses of the time, reflecting the large amounts of free time the unemployed citizens of America now had—but also offering that intriguing combination of promises: faint traces of fame and glory, cash and prizes, on the one hand, and work, food and shelter for a short while, on the other.

We may not know any of this, however, and still experience Dance Marathon as a satisfactory reference to a popular form, because the similarity with contemporary reality television is so stark. We enter; we queue to register; we fill out a form waiving health risks; we get a number; we complete a small dance card with personal trivia that will become crucial for the unfolding of the show; we talk to each other in mass anticipation. Our Mistress of Ceremonies introduces the rules: feet moving at all times, no knees touching the floor. We are randomly coupled and, I may add, this is all very exciting: we do dance, with great abandon, the way I rarely see Melburnians dance. There is no audience, although we are being filmed. Do we notice or care? No. As we have heard from reality TV participants, nobody does.

The evening includes dance lessons, games, elimination rounds, celebrity guests, skills showcases (Bron Batten does a mean tap dance), prizes. The logic of elimination is entirely congruent with both reality TV and the pedagogical rules of making all children feel included in a game: very few eliminations in the first three quarters, then a large cull before the semi-finals (bringing the numbers down from 65 to 6); contestants are eliminated on mainly irrelevant grounds, with great attention to preserving the diversity of faces; and the overall winner is decided in a micro-cart race. It is the most inclusive format that an elimination game could possibly assume. Just like those real people on TV sets, smiling under a cloud of swirling confetti, so are we feeling extremely gratified to be participating in something as lovely as Dance Marathon.

However, as a first-hand immersive experience, Dance Marathon is the complete opposite of its own references: it is rewarding, pleasurable, even empowering. In a town of reluctant dancers, it was quite marvellous to see people with no clear dance skills throw themselves around next to highly trained professionals, the former unselfconscious, the latter unselfconsciously corny. Moments of provided entertainment quickly became something to participate in, rather than just watch — in a way similar to Jerome Bel’s The Show Must Go On, the emphasis on the silly imbued the audience with great freedom to act. A reading of a sad poem prompted waves of expressive dance. Every so often, in the middle of a dance number, a choreographed formation would emerge, and we would move aside to observe better these bluemouth inc dancers whom we thought were here just to play. Overall, Dance Marathon worked like a truly wonderful party, in which the organised entertainment blended in perfectly with the fun we were able to have all by ourselves.

Dance Matathon, bluemouth inc. Photo: Gordon Hawkins.

The question worth posing is, why? This close to the experience, the answer can be only vaguely attempted. Dance Marathon foregrounded the elements of game with rules and challenges that stripped away a whole layer of agency from the participant, paradoxically liberating us from having to make choices, thus making us also safe from ridicule or awkwardness. Freud elaborates on the transition from children’s games to adults’ jokes, the latter being essentially more self-protective and tendentious. A joke protects its own pleasure before the intellect. A game, on the other hand, is pure pleasure codified — the purpose is not to win, but to follow the rules. Once inside the girdle of the rules, we are probably as free as we can ever be. It makes one wonder about the extent to which the emergence of immersive theatre — essentially games for adults — responds to some deep need we have today for simple pleasures.

On the other hand, it was very rewarding to see a huge mix of people — from the dedicated contemporary dance audience to people coming straight from swing classes, to those just having a Saturday night out — utterly enjoying, and understanding, an event that questions the theatrical form to this degree. It reminds one of the fact that dance, of all the ‘highbrow’ art forms, has the strongest connection to the street and to play — a point not made often enough.

As Deleuze said somewhere, we do not have a body, we are a body. In other words, our body is not an object we put into practice, but the entity through which we experience the world. This is why Dance Marathon, however satisfying on the level of reference to bread and circuses, exists primarily as an extraordinary party, allowing us to dance with strangers, be blindfolded and drawn into complex choreographies, and even attempt a mass (unskilled) rendition of the dance sequence in Jean Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964), as Anna Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey progressively accelerate on screen—and all with great pleasure.

Bande à Part – Dance Scene from Maria Tavares on Vimeo.

A perfect end to Dance Massive.

Dance Massive: bluemouth Inc, Dance Marathon, performers, creators Clara Adams, Stephen O’Connell, Clayton Dean Smith, Cass Bugge, Lucy Simic, Cameron Davis, musicians Steve Charles, Peter Lubulwa, Eugene Ball, Carlo Barbaro. Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, March 26; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 19. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

This is a dear review of mine, because it was written in an only-half-rational frame of mind. Dance Marathon – which I had enjoyed immensely – ended around 2am, and my deadline for the review was 12pm. I got home, fell asleep (I was exhausted and exhilarated), slept until about 9am, sat down and wrote this. The published article is not far from the first draft.

While I no longer think that Dance Marathon is the masterpiece I proclaim it to be here, many of its qualities are undeniably in the experience itself, not in the semiotic skeleton that remains in our minds afterwards. Theologically, I understand myself to be a secular Catholic; something akin to a secular Jew, with an appreciation of ritual and ceremony in and of themselves, not as a shortcut to an omniscient, omnipotent God. Dance Marathon seems to me to possess many of the best qualities of the religious liturgy, quite beside its own postmodern understanding of what it is. As you can hopefully read between these lines, it is undeniable that I had a rave time.

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Dance Massive: The ambiguities of happiness (reviewed: Shaun Parker’s Happy as Larry)

Shaun Parker: Happy as Larry. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I ENCOUNTERED SHAUN PARKER’S HAPPY AS LARRY WITH A VIVID FEAR OF REPEATING A RECENT EXPERIENCE OF SEEING A PERFORMANCE ON HAPPINESS DEVISED BY SOME THEATRE UNDERGRADUATES. AFTER AN HOUR OF WATCHING THEM FROLIC AND TUMBLE, GIGGLE AND DANCE, I BELIEVE THE ENTIRE AUDIENCE WISHED THEM DEAD. NOTHING CAN BE QUITE SO IRRITATING AS WATCHING A PERSON IN A PROLONGED STATE OF BEING DEEPLY HAPPY. WE DO NOT IDENTIFY, QUITE THE CONTRARY: WE FEEL EXCLUDED, DISRESPECTED, IGNORED. WE MAKE COMPARISONS TO ARYAN PROPAGANDA. WE FEEL ENVY.

Not without reason have the classic theatrical forms focused on showing us great tragedies, or ridiculing deeply flawed characters. That’s something to identify with easily: suffering and smugness. Herein lies the paradox of mimesis: another’s happiness is not transferable by identification, does not become my happiness. Show me a happy person on stage, I am likely to see only a self-satisfied bastard.

Happy as Larry shows us people in prolonged states of happiness for no less than 75 minutes, with no narrative arc or character development to introduce variety, and no recourse to the spoken word. However, within this field of monotony it focuses on the varieties of experience and personality, loudly proclaiming its employment of the Enneagram’s nine personality types to create an interesting range of joyful experiences.

We watch very different people enjoy very different activities: a ballerina delights in perfectly executing a classical figure; two young men copy each other’s movements flawlessly, their happiness being both shared and competitive; three women dance, laughing, lightly and not overly concerned with precision; a roller-skater learns to control his wheels. Adam Gardnir’s elegant set, a rotating blackboard slab, keeps the meter of the show, sweeping dancers upstage and bringing new scenes on. While most activities are representations of a simple, even childlike delight in bodily coordination, synchronised movement or skill, some are complex and intriguing. A narcissistic seducer, compulsively revealing his tattoo, dances despite Dean Cross’s chalked suggestion: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Miranda Wheen, on the other hand, appears on the scene only as a mediator of other performers’ journeys: she tries to contain the seducer’s movements, or picks up and steadies the roller-skater. Her satisfaction is palpable, and yet there remains a niggling trace of disappointment as the stage is never hers, her fulfilment never self-generated.

Ghenoa Gela, Happy as Larry, Shaun Parker & Company. Photo: Prudence Upton.

It is this democratisation of what could otherwise easily be a fascist insistence on unity of experience that guides Happy as Larry safely out of dangerous waters or sparking a riot in the audience. The rotation of interacting, interfering characters opens up a space for identification. While Parker spends too long hitting a single emotional note, thus provoking some boredom, he also repeatedly manages to bring us back by creating a fresh image of a kind of joy we have previously not considered—such as Cross’ deep, rich euphoria expressed through forceful sliding across the stage, leaving powerful and inarticulate daubs of chalk on the board, a possible representation of artistic creation. Moments of such recognition are powerful if infrequent, and it does make one wonder about how little time we spend thinking about what makes us happy, and how much worrying about what worries us.

The choreography and the technique are beautiful, and this is to a large extent a dance to enjoy for the variety of dancing bodies and styles. However, the dramaturgy is held together more by the rotating slab and the excellent soundtrack (available on iTunes, no less!) than by any sound sense of purpose. What backbone there is is provided by a recurring attempt to illustrate the fleetingness of happiness—from trying to draw a square around a balletic swirl to the ever-growing ridiculous chalk diagrams of Marnie Palomares’ limbs. Like Luke George’s excellent NOW NOW NOW, Happy as Larry allows the pursuits of the present moment to resolve in absurdity. Now is only ever now, and the detritus of these moments is not happiness itself, any more than the collection of props in a gallery could ever be a decent substitute for Marina Abramovic.

After many false endings, the final scene turns unexpectedly bleak: the choreography resolves into unison repetition of movements one could expect from football hooligans—raised fists, chest banging, machine-gun mime. This is repetition for its own sake, dark and not at all joyful, the very image of the death drive. Is this what happens when we try to retrieve irrecuperable happiness? There is not enough solid dramaturgy to know for sure. One by one the dancers leave the stage, leaving Dean Cross entangled in the balloons, themselves detritus from the beginning of the show which, I forgot to mention, involved a sequence of very simple stage trickery. Light switches drawn on the blackboard ‘operated’ stage lights and a flock of balloons was summoned with a snap of fingers. Happiness seemed a very simple thing at that time.

Dance Massive: Shaun Parker, Happy as Larry, director/choreographer Shaun Parker, dramaturg Veronica Neave, musical director Nick Wales, composers Nick Wales, Bree van Reyk, production design Adam Gardnir, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, March 22, 23; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime, issue #102, April-May 2011, pg. 18. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

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Dance Massive: into the dance-scape (reviewed: Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass)

Paul White, In Glass. Photo: Ian Bird, courtesy Sydney Opera House.

PLENITUDE IS A GOOD WORD TO DESCRIBE NARELLE BENJAMIN’S IN GLASS—NOT IN THE SENSE OF ABUNDANCE, PERHAPS NOT, BUT CERTAINLY IN THE SENSE OF AMASSING, OF MULTIPLIED SAMENESS. THE GORGEOUS, PRECISE BODIES OF KRISTINA CHAN AND PAUL WHITE ARE QUITE ABLE TO COMMAND THE STAGE IN SINGULAR, BUT IN GLASS MULTIPLIES THEM THROUGH GENTLY ANGLED MIRRORS, FILM AND INTERPLAY OF LIGHT AND SHADOW—MAKING AS MANY AS SIX OF THE SAME DANCING COUPLE AT ONCE.

They mirror each other, too, sometimes in perfect synchronicity, sometimes with a calculated lag; then they split into duets with a recognisable male-female dynamic. This shifting between synchronicity and sensual dialogue evokes intriguing parallels with psychoanalytical thought, as the two dancers seem to achieve a completion of sorts in paralleling each other’s movements: through learning to imitate and respond to each other they seem to grow conscious of themselves, each other, the world, their relationship. Without going too deeply into Lacanian psychoanalysis, the notion of the mirror stage, in which reflection of one’s self allows self-conscience to emerge, is a notion dear to all performance—recurring in theories of performativity from Judith Butler among others. For a while there, the multitude of reflecting Chans and Whites exists without leader or follower: a perfect tribe of dancers, an image of primordial unity. There is some logic to this interpretation: the mirror stage is but a moment in our lives, and irretrievable—and Chan and White spend the later, larger part of In Glass out of sync, seeking each other. If the mirror starts as a vehicle for happy unison of the many, it soon turns into a visual maze, a passage through a glass, darkly.

Much of the dramaturgical responsibility in In Glass rests on Samuel James’ visual design, which adds a layer of video to the already complex reflecting images. Through the projections, the mirrors shatter, dancers’ limbs multiply into insectoid, almost abstract arabesques and a forest landscape engulfs Chan’s and White’s bodies as they slip behind glass. Chan, a comparatively small woman, repeatedly wanders off into the forest, as bare-footed and lost as that child in McCubbin’s painting. When she reappears on stage, she is prostrate, asleep, as if she had been spirited away without any agency of her own. In these moments In Glass appears to tell a story of star-crossed lovers, or even (to remain psychoanalytical) of that impossible thing we seek in everyone we fall in love with—the faint memory of our pre-conscious unity with the world. The repetition of loss, search and encounter echoes itself in slight inflections, as reclamation of lost ground, which never turns out to be quite the same.

Benjamin’s choreography reaches its apex with the introduction of two smaller, oval mirrors, which allow the dancers to multiply only some of their body parts, and merge into fabulous beasts. Paul White becomes a three-headed Narcissus (or Cerberus), licking and kissing his own reflection. The moment is exquisite: as the light from the mirrors scans through the audience, occasionally blinding us, we are brought into the same space as White, now as sublime as a psychotic monster. Kristina Chan’s transformation into a many-limbed Hindu deity is equally captivating: White stands behind her with the mirrors, multiplying her arms. Both dancers reflect and multiply in the larger mirrors behind them, forming a gigantic pastiche of human matter, not unlike an organic Rorschach blot. In these moments, what has so far been their internal quest grows larger, universal, archetypal. The performers could be gods or animals.

However, such moments of confronting strangeness are too rare. For the most part, In Glass insists on a certain mellow beauty which, however satisfying on a purely aesthetic level, keeps its tone too even, too centred, to build a genuinely satisfactory dramatic arc. The beauty of individual scenes is undeniable; the purpose or intent of the entire endeavour much harder to ascertain—video and choreography become sequential eye candy, creating the pleasant effect of dance wallpaper.

I am reminded of early 20th-century dance, its insistence on harmony and pure expression of the body, and, even more, of Gertrude Stein’s ‘landscape plays.’ All of Stein’s principles—the interest in reaching the unconscious, the continuous dramatic present, the play that one can contemplate as one would a park or a landscape, the seeming homogeneity of content which, actually, goes through subtle variations and loops—are present in In Glass. Stein eliminated the dramatic narrative on purpose, proclaiming that it always made her terribly nervous. In Glass comes with no such manifesto, but it does seem to be trying to create a landscape of its own sort. And it succeeds: even if we are not sure what it was saying, we do believe we have heard it say something.

The greatest part of the experience of any dance work is retrospective, the memory of a body at a constant vanishing point. As such, it is hard in a review that follows so closely after the event to say with certainty what this experience was. Perhaps that three-headed Narcissus will crystallise into an indelible image in a week’s time? It is too early to tell.

In Glass (The Studio – 2010) from Sam James on Vimeo.

2011 Dance Massive: In Glass, choreographer Narelle Benjamin, dancers Kristina Chan, Paul White, composer Huey Benjamin, visual design Samuel James, costumes Tess Schofield, lighting Karen Norris, Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, March 15-20; www.dancemassive.com.au

First published on the RealTime website, as a part of RealTime’s critical coverage of Dance Massive 2011. Reprinted in RealTime issue #102 April-May 2011 pg. 17. The 2011 Dance Massive archive can be accessed here.

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